The Blog

Sex Sells: But What Price Genuine Change?

Are we really satisfied in our hamstrung, restricted role as passive consumers of the society we are given? Or do we want to step up and take a role as active citizens in the construction of something more equitable, more meaningful, and more authentically free?

There are two crucial questions about the current rise of female indignation: firstly, how deep will the critique go? And second, will the men join in?

Charlotte Church and Sinead O'Connor have the headlines for the moment. Chrissie Wellington and Emma Pooley, the leaders of the charge for a Women's Tour de France, had them just before. But will they realise the unity of their causes, and the depth of the issues that lie behind both? Will the male-dominated media allow them to? Or will this just be another bump in consciousness, for hands to be wrung and some small specifics to be conceded before business goes on as usual?

Both these stories, building on the finest campaigning strategy, have captured the public imagination in part because they feature specific calls to action. Pooley and Wellington built their campaign around the call for a Women's Tour, subsequently publishing a full manifesto for equality - or at least comparability - in the world of professional cycling. Church, in giving the John Peel Lecture at the annual Radio Festival in Salford, has defined her terms and targets, rightly identifying Radio 1's iPlayer launch as a critical moment: "If there are no sanctions put upon music that is written so zealously about genitalia, or uses soft porn in its promotion online, what is to stop artists feeling that making their music and videos more sexy will undoubtedly drive up their online views and subsequently encourage more radio play."

But it is only if we dare to bring the two together that we might start to see the true whole. We might start to see that the phenomenon of sex gangs that has appeared on our collective radar only in the last year is a problem of gender, not race or religion, as Crown Chief Prosecutor Nazir Afzal has repeatedly declared. We might start to link these facts up with the horror of everyday sexual abuse in our society, so rife that in a recent TFL survey, 15% of women - nearly 1 in 6 - said they had experienced some form of inappropriate contact on London's public transport system. We might be able to see, not only that Miley's twerking is not an isolated incident, but that the whole music industry is just one symptom of a far broader, more pervasive cultural sickness - a sickness some of whose symptoms we have treated over the mounting decades since the Suffragettes, but whose causes we have signally failed to eradicate.

The difficulties with addressing the problem at the root are many, and not the least of them is the near-universal, casual sexism that riddles male public conversation. Staying in the world of cycling to find my example, I have no reason to believe Sir Bradley Wiggins, the first British winner of the Tour de France and a widely held sporting hero, to be a deliberate misogynist; but in criticising himself for "descending like a girl" in his abortive attempt to add to his Tour crown another of cycling's great trophies, the Giro d'Italia, there can be no doubt he will have greatly undermined the subsequent efforts of Pooley and co. It would be a major coup if Wiggins put himself full-bore behind the Women's Tour, inscribing his name beside Nazir Afzal's on the list of prominent male feminists. For genuine change to come about, it is a pre-condition not only that we men cease our casual blunders, but that we actively step up and add our voices.

Even then, though, we will not be at the root of the issue. To grossly simplify a gross situation, the fundamental we must face into is that when it comes to women, sex sells, and other-than-sex doesn't. And in a culture that abdicates its moral agency to the market, what sells is what we do... and what doesn't, isn't. A senior figure at publisher Conde Nast, the mother organisation for Vogue magazine among others, recently said as much to me: "We can only do what the consumer wants. The consumer wants sexy skinny girls. We provide sexy skinny girls. If we do not provide, they do not buy. If they do not buy, there is no Vogue."

He is, of course, right. And in this light, it is perhaps admirable that Vogue have done even what little they have; though their 2012 ban on models under 16 and ill-defined pledge to use 'healthy' models may seem rather minimal in comparison to the scale of the problem. But the Vogue consumer, whose expected role and primary agency is to buy, and who is surrounded by these images which routinely normalise and objectify her sexuality, is not going to change the game either. So what are we to do?

To my mind, this is where the real conversation needs to begin. We are stuck. As on so many issues, from sexism to climate change to global poverty, business is looking to consumers and government to move, while each of those groups is staring equally expectantly at the other two. And this is the level at which the conversations need to be woven together, so that we can face into the discussion about who we all - women and men - want to be. Are we really satisfied in our hamstrung, restricted role as passive consumers of the society we are given? Or do we want to step up and take a role as active citizens in the construction of something more equitable, more meaningful, and more authentically free?

The momentum that heroic women like Emma Pooley and Charlotte Church are creating has incredible potential. I have signed Pooley's petition to the Tour, and look forward to receiving the inevitable email carrying Church's to Tony Hall and the BBC. But I sincerely hope they do not stop there.

Jon is exploring ideas relating to consumerism and citizenship and invites your comments at the New Citizenship Project.